KUNG FU HUSTLE "This isn't an effect… I really look like this."
Kung Fu Hustle
dir. Chow
Opens Fri April 22
Various Theaters

dir. Otomo
Opens Fri April 22
Cinema 21

Steamboy, the latest from anime legend Katsuhiro Otomo, begins auspiciously enough. Otomo--who's still revered for directing and co-writing Akira, 1988's seminal anime--opens with a bold creative decision. Steamboy isn't set in either of anime's clichéd settings; there's no hint of a hyper-techy future, nor of an overly mythologized past. No--Steamboy promises to be something different, beginning with its backdrop: 19th-century London.

The characters of Steamboy are fascinated by the then-modern concept of steam power, and so, clearly, is Otomo: Hulking iron machines lurch and spin while spitting out bursts of steam from their blackened seams; flying and driving machines soar and chug through picturesque landscapes; the Manchester countryside and the boulevards of London are overrun with fantastic machines that bring with them the promise of the future.

But just as steam power seems weakly archaic today, Steamboy's promising sheen is quickly tarnished. After a few impressive action sequences at the start of the film, Steamboy crumbles under its overwrought scope. Its plot follows a young boy, Ray Steam (convincingly voiced by Anna Paquin), who inherits his inventor grandfather's "steamball"--a small device that can power gigantic machines. Ray's quest to protect the steamball sets him on a journey in which he meets his half-robot father (Alfred Molina) and his fallen-from-grace grandfather (Patrick Stewart). It's an impressive voice cast, and a similarly impressive family dynamic--the ideological tension between science's glowy idealism and gritty reality is given a few interesting tweaks through the characters. But it's impossible to care about anyone in the film, largely thanks to Otomo's insistence at upstaging his characters with massive effects sequences. Blending CG imagery with traditional cel animation, Otomo knows how to make a striking visual--the problem being that he does so with such regularity that Steamboy grows tiresome long before it reaches its climax.

While Otomo insecurely relies on CG-enhanced visuals in a futile attempt to retain the audiences' attentions, another film confidently supplements its enjoyable story with CG. Kung Fu Hustle, the latest from Hong Kong's superstar director and star, Stephen Chow. Like Chow's previous work--which includes Shaolin Soccer and God of Cookery--Hustle is all over the map: It's part slapstick, part hokey drama, part action extravaganza, and part cartoon, with all of the seemingly disparate parts combining to make a nearly perfect comedy.

Set in 1940s Shanghai, Hustle begins with Sing (Chow), an incompetent punk who's enamored with the Axe Gang--a menacing crime syndicate that's prone to singing Broadway-style musical numbers. Posing as an Axe, Sing causes trouble for the residents of the downtrodden Pig Sty Alley--luckily, Pig Sty's unassuming tenants have some hidden skills that might come in handy. While Chow's been the star of most of his previous work, he has a slightly smaller role here, turning screen time over to the rest of Hustle's cast, like Pig Sty's Landlord and Landlady (Wah Yuen and Qiu Yuen), whose pedestrian marital squabbles belie the fact that they're secretly kung fu masters.

As agreeable as Hustle's plot is, it's largely an excuse for Chow to show off his hyperactive brand of humor. Hustle feels like the aftermath of an explosion made up of Looney Tunes shorts and classic kung fu flicks; the whole thing's ridiculous, sweet, and engaging.

As in Shaolin Soccer, Chow makes extensive use of CG, both in slapstick routines and over-the-top action sequences. Notably, the CG in Hustle is far less competent than Steamboy's--the latter being nearly flawless in blending traditional cel and computer animation; by contrast, Hustle's CG is blurry, inconsistent, amateurish.

But Steamboy's slickness is no match for Hustle's heart. Kung Fu Hustle is Chow at the top of his game, and it's so entertaining that the sub-par CG simply becomes part of the film's considerable charm. If nothing else, the difference between Steamboy and Kung Fu Hustle affirms that when it comes to filmmakers experimenting with the dizzying potential of computer animation, CG has no sway over what makes a good film. Eye-popping, jaw-dropping visuals are still no substitute for what Steamboy has none of and Kung Fu Hustle has a lot of: Heart. And Looney Tunes references.